Yukon has a vibrant culture filled with rich northern tradition — First Nation customs and beliefs, an active Francophone community and the tales, artifacts and architecture of
the Klondike Gold Rush.
Interpretive centres, Yukon First Nation cultural and heritage centres and museums are dedicated to reflecting Yukon culture through the preservation and interpretation of Yukon’s unique northern heritage.
Yukon has a high concentration and diverse selection of artists and artisans. Its communities are home to performing, literary and visual artists who work in a variety of traditions and markets.
Visitors and Yukoners can participate in a myriad of festivals, visual arts and craft fairs, concerts, literary readings and theatre presentations. Yukon First Nation languages, stories and customs are also interpreted and expressed in film, storytelling, visual arts and crafts, theatre and dance.
The arts are fostered through funding programs, training, promotion and the management of several public art collections.
The Yukon Permanent Art Collection is home to works by prominent Yukon and Canadian artists and serves as a reflection of Yukon’s heritage and culture. The art collection is on display for public enjoyment and includes many pieces being rotated throughout various government buildings in Whitehorse and other Yukon communities.
Language is the vehicle of culture. The way culture is shared and passed on to the young is deeply interwoven with ideas expressed in language.
First Nations’ storytelling is based on legends about the creation of earth and the first peoples who inhabited the earth. These legends are an important part of Yukon First Nation culture and have been passed down from generation to generation.
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Community-based language projects, including curriculum and programming for schools, adult literacy classes as well as radio and television programming are helping to preserve, develop and enhance Yukon aboriginal languages.
In Yukon, there are 8 different language groups (7 Athapaskan and 1 Tlingit).
The Gwitchin have been known by many names including Crow River (Vunta) Kutchin and Loucheux, a name given to them by French fur traders. Their "home" river has always been the Crow which flows into the Porcupine and into the Yukon River.
In the past, the Gwitchin were made up of many independent families whose activities depended upon seasonal food gathering. The traditional Gwitchin habitat included about 10,000 square miles of land, with many people coming together each year to fish on the Porcupine River.
The Gwitchin have close ties to the land and to the Porcupine caribou herd which provides their food and livelihood.
Today, the centre of Vuntut Gwitchin culture in Yukon is the community of Old Crow, the most northerly-year round settlement.
The Hän live in traditional territories in northwest Yukon and Alaska along the Yukon River and its tributaries northwest of Dawson City.
The Hän economy was based on the salmon. The Hän gathered in large groups along the river during summer to harvest, smoke and dry salmon. In winter, they broke into smaller family units to hunt for game.
The Hän were greatly affected by the division of their land between Canada and Russia, and the discovery of gold 25 years later around Dawson City in 1897. Within months, a few hundred Hän people were immersed in a sea of white immigrants numbering in the tens of thousands. Hän traditional life was changed completely.
Today, many Hän live in Dawson City and belong to Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, a Self-Governing First Nation.
The Tutchone occupied central southwestern Yukon. During the seasonal rounds the Tutchone fished for salmon and whitefish in spring and summer, and hunted moose, sheep and woodland caribou in the fall. Fur trapping and trading was a central part of the domestic economy before 1900.
Tutchone traditionally expressed themselves through singing, dancing, storytelling and other cultural traditions.
By the turn of the century, the Tutchone culture felt the sudden impact of thousands of gold seekers in their territories. The building of the Alaska Highway further intensified these changes.
At Lake Laberge, a major division in dialect separates the Tutchone into Northern and Southern peoples. Speakers of Northern and Southern Tutchone can speak with each other but with some difficulty.
The Northern Tutchone live in an area that includes Mayo, Pelly Crossing and Carmacks. A smaller settlement also exists on the White River.
Northern Tutchone are members of the Selkirk First Nation, Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation and Na-Cho Nyäk Dun First Nation.
As the fur trade intensified in the 19th century, the Tutchone culture began to be more and more influenced by the Coastal Tlingit. Many inter-marriages took place and many Tutchone living in the southern area were incorporated into clans bearing Tlingit names.
South Tutchone members belong to Kwanlin Dün First Nation, Champagne Aishihik First Nation, Ta'an Kwäch’än Council and Kluane First Nation.
The area of the Southern Tutchone includes Whitehorse, Haines Junction, and Burwash Landing.
Only a small part of the lands originally held by the Upper Tanana remains in Yukon today. Traditionally, their lands included the headwaters of the Tanana River in Alaska, and a portion of the White River in Yukon.
Upper Tanana speakers in Yukon live in the far west, in the Beaver Creek area. Members of the Upper Tanana belong to the White River First Nations.
The Kaska language is part of the Na-Dene (Athapaskan) language group which is spread over Western Canada, Alaska and southeastern United States. Of all neighbouring people, the Kaska are most closely related to the Slavey of the Northwest Territories.
The Kaska live in the mountainous headwaters of the Pelly and Liard Rivers in the eastern Yukon. They hunted caribou, moose and Dall sheep, and traded furs with coastal First Nations.
The Kaska language has lost its natural and everyday use as the language of the home and work place. Elders and those who do traditional work on the land still speak the native language, mostly among friends and family.
Today most Kaska live in the communities of Ross River, Upper Liard and Lower Post. There are two First Nations within the Kaska region - Liard First Nation and the Ross River Dena Council.
Yukon's southern lakes are the traditional territory of the Tagish people, once a large nation. Their yearly rounds followed the movements of moose, woodland caribou, sheep and fish.
In the 1800s, they were drawn into the fur trade, acting as middlemen between the coastal Tlingit and inland Kaska and Tutchone. Over time, many Tagish people adopted the Tlingit social customs. Today, members of the Carcross-Tagish First Nation live in the Carcross area south of Whitehorse.
Coastal Tlingit people were the main players in the trade economy of the late 19th century and early 20th century in Yukon. Over the past 100 years, the inland Tlingit migrated into southern Yukon from the Taku River area on the Alaskan coast. They came to the interior to trade with the Athapaskans.
As a result of their trading activities, many of the interior Athapaskan people came to understand and speak the Tlingit language.
Gradually, permanent settlements of the Tlingit evolved in what is now southwestern Yukon and northern British Columbia. These main communities are Teslin, Carcross, and Atlin (in northern British Columbia).
Today, only a few elders speak Tlingit actively. With efforts being made at cultural revivals such as dancing, singing and re-assigning Tlingit geographical place names, there is an increase in the use of Tlingit words on the part of many community members.
While there are fewer francophones today than there were at the end of the last century, a significant number of Yukoners claim French ancestory and a small but growing number speak French as a first language.
The francophone community is responsible for French first language education in Yukon and operates its own elected school board, la Commission scolaire francophone. Pre-school students have access to a francophone daycare, la Garderie du petit cheval blanc.
A vibrant community association, the Association franco-yukonnaise, is actively engaged in promoting and offering French language services from its own community centre. The community also has a French-language bi-weekly newspaper, l’Aurore boréale.